Archive for December, 2018

The end is near!

I’m fairly confident I have my list of top movies narrowed down. The problem now is getting them into the right order. A couple late-opening films forced some reorganizing, and the agonizing removal of a few titles.

But there was one movie that kept sticking with me. I couldn’t justify putting it in the Top 10 over other films, but it killed me to let it go. And so, this year’s Number 11 film is:

A Quiet Place

Within minutes of the opening credits, writer-director John Krasinski’s science-fiction/horror film lets you know that it’s playing with a different rule book. An otherwise prototypical post-apocalyptic cold open — with a family scavenging a deserted store for food and other supplies — gives way to a frightening change of stakes as the family tip-toes their way home, cautious that any sound of meaningful volume will attract nightmarish creatures lurking just out of sight.

That harsh start kicks off a tight 90-minute survival tale that inventively uses misdirection and near-silence to toy with the senses and ramp up the tension to visceral levels. And the film’s centerpiece sequence, with the main characters separated and facing a cascade of challenges — including labor — is impressively plotted out and shot for a first-time director who shows an aptitude for scene geography and set piece design.

Most impressive is how the film is built around what would otherwise be a gimmick — don’t make noise or aliens (?) will eat you — but manages to do its premise justice, taking the time to build as convincing a world as possible around that particular, and grotesque, set of circumstances.

The conclusion is perhaps a little too tidy, erring on the side of relief at the end of a dark story. But those narrative decisions also feel intentional and earned, with “A Dark Place” taking pains to show how some people could survive in such a dark reality, and centering its story on a particularly well-suited, and hopeful, group of survivors.

There is some early talk of a potential “Quiet-ER Place” sequel (my name, not theirs) and if that happens, I’ll be at the theater on opening night.

And a few more:

Last year, I included a few quick shout-outs to additional movies on my Top 10 post. It was a nice addition, IMHO, and one that maybe works best added on to the Number 11. (We’ll see, I might have more shout-outs to make next week too).

I nearly gave the 11th spot to Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse,
which I saw with step-son and like as much, if not more, than he did. It combines the retro superheroes-are-so-coooool feel of the old Saturday morning cartoons that I grew up on with a top notch animation style and *just enough* hipster cynicism.

Widdows, was very good, and was on my Top 10 until it got bumped off by the late arrivals. The ensemble work is on point, and it seamlessly blends together a good old fashioned heist flick with a moving political and social commentary.

I’m a sucker for a good period piece, and Mary Queen of Scots delivered. Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are sublime as the queens of Scotland and England, respectively, who could have built a better world if not for the fickle, contentious and power-hungry men around them who refused to loosen their grasps on the levers of power.

And finally First Reformed (currently free on Amazon Prime) is a thought-provoking story of faith. The overall story was a bit too ambiguous for my taste, but Ethan Hawke, as the film’s protagonist, delivers a fascinating and understated performance.

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It’s Christmas Eve. The shopping is finished, the stockings are hung, and not a creature is stirring, so you know what that means: time to get to work on my year-end best movies list.

I don’t know exactly what years constitute “the old ways,” but they’re definitely dead in 2018. All the good movies come out in November and December? Nope. “Summer” movies have to be stupid? Nope.

Netflix can’t make a good movie? Nope.

We’ll get to all of that over the next couple weeks. But for now, here’s some of the movies I loved watching this year that didn’t quite make the final cut of the Top 10.

Best swan song: The Old Man and the Gun

Who better than Robert Redford to play a criminal of a certain age who robs banks using little more than effortless charm? No one, that’s who.

In what will be (allegedly) his final onscreen performance, Redford plays real-life heist man Forrest Tucker in director David Lowry’s (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) delightful film that is part whodunit, part biopic and part golden-years romantic comedy.

It’s a great sendoff for the veteran actor who, like Tucker, has always made it look easy.

Best Box-office Flop: Bad Times at the El Royale

“El Royale,” made $31.5 million worldwide on a budget of $32 — so safe to say there won’t be a “Worse Times at the El Royale” any time soon. (<— Not that I’m actually advocating for a sequel, as that would be a horrible idea).

It’s a darned shame too. As El Royale is one of the best ensemble pieces of the year, with the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and 2018 M.V.P. contender Cynthia Erivo (also in “Widows” this year) in a twisty Summer-of-love-era period thriller from writer-director Drew Goddard, whose “Cabin in the Woods” similarly goofed around with convention and failed to find the audience it deserved.

Best Superhero(es): Avengers: Infinity War

I absolutely understand why some are fatigued with superhero movies. I was getting close, but then “Infinity War” happened and pulled me back in.

Set aside, for a moment, the deluge of comic-book adaptations and consider what Marvel Studios was able to achieve with IW. The first Avengers, successfully merging three franchises (plus the Hulk), was itself a minor miracle. But Infinity War is on an entirely different and unprecedented scale, seamlessly weaving together narrative threads that spread out over 18 distinct films released over a period of 10 years.

It’s a feat of storytelling, put into corporeal form through a cinematic investment that spared no expense, all culminating in a surprising, genuinely affecting film that left anxious for the next chapter.

Best documentary: Three Identical Strangers

The initial set-up of “Three Identical Strangers” is, by itself, the kind of story that sounds stranger than fiction. A young man enrolls in college and finds himself an instant big man on campus courtesy of the identical twin he never knew existed who went to the same school one year earlier.

The already-bizarre tale gets its first twist early, as it turns out the twins are triplets. But that’s only the tip of an iceberg that is carefully and meticulously revealed regarding the brother’s separation at birth.

Best Horror: Suspiria

A close contender for the final award on this list, and one for which the “horror” label doesn’t fit quite right (the *actual* best horror movie of the year is part of the 2018 Top 10. Hint, hint) Luca Guadagnino’s remake of “Suspiria” is frequently unsettling, occasionally disturbing, and endlessly fascinating.

Centered around a dance schools/coven of witches in divided Berlin, “Suspiria” is a moody, atmospheric film that jumps from beautiful to grotesque and back again with a dark humor and unforgiving sense of dread. Bookended by two truly bonkers dance sequences (the first of which is back-dropped against a “how did they do that?” onscreen death) “Suspiria” is a movie that wonderfully defies description.

Best popcorn: Mission Impossible: Fallout

Until 2018, each of the five installments in the Mission Impossible franchise had been helmed by a new director and connected only by a loose mythology, a core cast of characters and the charge that Ethan Hunt, an agent within the Impossible Mission Force, save the world and nearly die in the process.

In Fallout, we have the first direct sequel, with director Christopher McQuarrie returning and continuing the story he launched in “Rogue Nation.” And it’s easy to see why the people behind all these impossible missions decided to break their own rules and ask McQuarrie on a second date.

Fallout is, simply, superb, the sort of extravanganza for which people say “this is why we go to the movies.” It’s nonstop plot barrels forward like a freight train, upping the ante with each new scene until a hold-your-breath climactic sequence that sees Tom Cruise in a helicopter chase/cliffside brawl while his team works to locate and dismantle a pair of nuclear weapons against a ticking clock.

For those nights when you need something big and loud and awesome, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Best indie: The Death of Stalin

Fans of HBO’s “Veep” know Armando Iannucci’s talent for mining government dysfunction for comedy. Now imagine “Veep” set in Soviet Russia and you have “The Death of Stalin,” a pitch-black comedy about the chaos and scheming that followed Stalin’s death as the members of his party jockeyed for position.

Steve Buscemi is the MVP as Nikita Khrushchev, but every member of the superb, expansive cast (including the always-interesting Jason Isaacs and a spectacularly dry performance by Andrea Riseborough ) gets plenty of moments to shine.

The 2018 Wood’s Stock Balls-to-the-Wall award: Sorry to Bother You

“Surreal” doesn’t even begin to describe “Sorry to Bother You,” writer-director Boots Riley’s film about a black telemarketer whose talent for sounding white on the phone catapults him to success selling what amounts to voluntary slave labor.

And that’s just the literal plot of “Sorry to Bother You,” an increasingly gonzo story that at one point takes a turn to [potential spoiler alert] include human-horse hybrid monsters. Riley’s meta commentary on race, class, art, popular culture and consumerism goes full-tilt for its central metaphor to increasingly bizarre and shocking results. It’s a movie with a lot on its mind, but at each point where there’s a risk of falling off the rails, Riley and his protagonist (the phenomenal Lakeith Stanfield) keep things just steady enough to keep the narrative going.

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It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these and I confess to being a little rusty.

I had a whole bit planned out for how my one-man-band One Wood Uke would be back from a faux-hiatus after internal rivalries, rehab and a failed solo effort by our frontman nearly destroyed the group, but my heart just wasn’t in it. (The One Wood Uke episode of “Behind The Music” would be preeeeeeeeetty boring).

What *is* exciting, though, is another Christmas collaboration with Liz. The last time we put out a video was our “We Three Kings/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” duet and we finally got around to a follow-up two years, a new house and an extra 80 pounds of Husky later — the fur balls were kind enough to nap in the other room the entire time we were recording.

So here’s our spin on the *consent* version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” by Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski. As always, you can download your own copy of the song for free at my bandcamp page, along with the rest of the One Wood Uke tracks.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

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Netflix is increasingly investing in original programming — television series and films — and if the myriad anecdotal reports are to be believed, a key plank in their pitch to lure talent is the promise of a hands-off approach.

The deal, reportedly, goes something like this: Dear director/writer/producer, if you choose Netflix over a traditional studio you won’t get released in theaters nationwide, but you’ll be able to make the film you want to make, without interference, and the potential to connect your film with its intended audience in their homes.

It is, to be sure, a tempting offer and one with merit. In the hands of an auteur, the Netflix platform has the potential to create fantastic cinematic storytelling.

But — and you knew there was a but coming — studio criticism can be constructive, and a slate of recent Netflix originals shows that boundless autonomy might actually work against the production of a great film by allowing talented filmmakers indulge too greedily in their worst instincts. 

Take, for example, “Hold The Dark,” the Alaskan-set murder mystery from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Ruin). It’s assuredly a Saulnier film, with its moody and matter-of-factly violent take on human nature. But it loses itself somewhere along its plot transition from a nature writer hired to track the wolf that killed a woman’s son to, well, whatever the movie is actually about.

More engaging, and ultimately more disappointing, is “Outlaw King,” which sees writer-director David Mackenzie follow up his incredible “Hell or High Water” with a biopic on Scottish revolutionary Robert the Bruce starring Chris Pine. 

There is a great movie hiding inside Outlaw King, and Mackenzie has already copped to trimming 20 minutes of footage after a mixed reaction at TIFF.

The post-production editing clearly could have, and should have gone farther. And the whiplash-like experience of watching the movie bounce from gorgeous and fine-tuned set pieces to indulgent filler is infuriating, made more so by the realization that some studio guidance possibly could have made Outlaw King a classic.

But as “Hold the Dark” and “Outlaw King” fall in a tangle of melted wax wings, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” soars. Here, veteran filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen demonstrate the kind of fun they can have with a blank check from Netflix.

Told as six Wild West vignettes, the movie has all the storybook oddity and black comedy of a classic Coen film, albeit with a certain winking playfulness that seams calibrated for our new home-streaming paradigm.

By my estimation, “Buster Scruggs” is the first truly great Netflix original. And as such, it sits on top of a pile of would-be contenders that failed to justify the their running times — the less said about “Bright” the better.

“Outlaw King” and “Hold the Dark” are not without their merits, but the shoulda-woulda-coulda aspect makes it hard to give them a full-fledged endorsement. In a way the three movies, together, make a perfect combo for that old party game: F@#k “Outlaw King,” Kill “Hold the Dark,” and Marry “Buster Scruggs.”

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